In a candid interview, Stephen Hubbard MD spoke to us about his 45 years in sampling.
SG: Hello Stephen. Let’s start at the very beginning. Why did you start your own company?
SH: In April 1978 I was working for a competitor and it wasn’t going too well so I saw it as an opportunity to start my own business in the same industry. I wanted to be my own boss and follow my own ideas. I asked Yorkshire Bank for £1,500 loan (a lot of money back then!) but they would only lend me £1,000, so I asked a good friend for the rest. I promised him I’d pay it back within 12 months and I actually paid it back within 6. We used the money for deposits on machinery and rent on 1,000 sq ft premises and that was it; we were up and running.
SG: What were the early years like?
SH: To begin with, there were just two of us and we did everything from sales to production to delivery. Within 6 months we took on our very first guillotine operator. After 3 years we outgrew that unit and moved into a 2,500 sq ft factory and employed Mark Donaghy who is actually still with us. We took on more people over the years and eventually moved to Drighlington into a 10,000 sq ft unit which felt huge at the time. By now, I was focusing on sales and left manufacturing to our production team. Though, until very recently, I still knew how to operate every piece of machinery in the factory; I’ve laid it, cut it, lined it and made a case for it! I really have done it all from start to finish.
SG: And now you’re based back in Batley?
SH: Yes, first of all at Field Lane in 14,000 sq ft where we continued to grow by adding more people and smaller additional units as they became available taking us to 24,000 sq ft. However, this became more of a rabbit warren so not allowing us to maintain our continuous improvement plans. It became less efficient so we started to look for better space, single storey and an open space which is where we found our existing 40,000 sq ft single story building on Grange Road. Due to skill levels required for the industry it was important to stay as close as possible in order not to lose people. We do receive many customer visits and every single one has been impressed with what has been achieved and the facilities we have.
SG: What other challenges did you face?
SH: Apart from recessions and Covid, I’d say there have been two main ones. The first was making sure we got paid so that we could pay wages, rates, bills and that sort of thing. The second was making sure there was enough work coming in at the right margins, both of which are still valid today of course.
SG: How different does your business look now versus when you started it?
SH: I suppose the obvious answer here is down to technology: the speed of communication/interaction with our customers and suppliers. In the early days, there were no faxes, computers, emails or mobiles. Funnily enough I remember when we got our first fax machine in the late 80’s, how amazed we were that we could draw a sketch and the customer would receive it within seconds of us faxing it over! And now faxes have been and gone.
Travel is another one. Traffic in the 70’s and 80’s was much lighter than it is today, so it made seeing customers much easier and faster. I could drive to London with my A-Z, see 5 customers and be back in the same day. Today that is simply not possible even on the train.
SG: There must have been times when you felt like giving up. What drives you to keep going?
SH: Ultimately, as a business I think it’s a passion for doing things well for people and giving a good service. We have lots of customers who have been with us for years, many of whom I now consider to be good friends. It would have been easy to give in at times, but you need to have drive and passion, faith and belief in your own and your team’s ability. Otherwise you wouldn’t do it.
SG: Are there any memorable moments that stand out for you?
SH: Yes for sure actually. In 2006 we were awarded The Queens Award for Enterprise – a fabulous honour and experience meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Also in 2002 we reached our first £1m annual sales target and in 2004 we started our own production factory in Poland.
SG: Based on your own journey, what advice would you give someone starting up their own business today?
SH: Create a business plan, have a clear strategy and be prepared to work very long hours! Seriously though, for me it’s been a huge learning curve over the years but I’ve always been 100% committed in making sure there is a longer term plan for the business to continue. Keep a tight control on costs and margins because ultimately that’s what brings you profitability. Know your product. That is critical to know if things are actually achievable.
SG: And finally, looking back, what have been the best & worst parts of having your own business?
SH: Oooh that’s a tricky one. It really is about the people. In a specialised industry our staff are our biggest assets. I suppose the hardest part has been having the responsibility for other people and their families’ livelihoods. We have a lot of staff who have given us long service and it’s been a pleasure to build good, strong working relationships with them. So keeping the orders coming in at the right margin has always been one of my priorities to make sure they have a secure future.
The best part? Again people; building relationships but with our customers this time. We’ve always had pride in giving a good reliable service and like to think that’s what sets us aside from our competitors. Knowing that customers can trust you to be competitive, give a good lead time and deliver a good product. We always put service first, never cut corners. The most important thing is what the customer thinks. If that is a positive experience then, more often than not, they will come back for more.
SG: Thanks Stephen.
Stefi Graham, April 2023